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The Telenovela is Born

The television industry in the United States had its start by the late 1940's and by the late 1950's soap operas were already a key component of daytime programming (Brown, 1994). As it happened with radionovelas, there is an undeniable link between American televised soap operas and their Latin American counterparts, the telenovelas.

However, researchers are quick to point out that even though Latin-American telenovelas share a common origin with the American soap operas, many differences abound, which make the telenovela a distinctive narrative genre (Mattellart & Mattelart, 1990, Martin-Barbero, 1995, Lopez, 1995, Mazziotti, 1993). Comparing the two broadcast dramas, it is noted that American soaps are life long engagements, while Latin American telenovelas tend to have around 180-200 episodes, with a well-delimited end (Lopez, 1991). American soaps were created to target the female audience, housewives to be exact. To this day, even though there has been a sharp increase of women working outside the home, soap operas are still written as a gendered narrative, formulated with relationship dramas to appeal to the female domestic audience, which makes up to 80 percent of the market (Mattelart & Mattelart, 1990; Harrington & Bielby, 1995). Again, this may be changing as more soap operas are being geared towards teenagers. In contrast, telenovelas had broadened their appeal to reach all audiences. They are constructed to draw a diverse audience of men and women of all ages. Because of this broad appeal, telenovelas are shown on primetime television, usually five to six days a week, while soaps are usually a daytime affair (Mattelart & Mattelart, 1995). Latin American telenovelas have therefore differentiated themselves from the American soap operas and over time transformed into a distinctive popular television genre.

The new popularized “reality television’ genre is beginning to appear in Latin American TV. Telemundo began with “Protagonistas de Novela”. It is not surprising that the theme was about telenovelas. In this show, contestants lived together in a house and competed for the prize of being a telenovela protagonist. The public voted on the ones that better performed telenovelas scenes the best. Many contestants from this show are now working as actors and actresses on Telemundo productions.

Telenovelas in Latin America share common denominators, such as the melodramatic storyline filled with characters that give life not only to romance but also to everyday struggles (Straubhar & Viscasillas; 1991, Mazziotti, 1992). However, while melodrama is in the heart of every telenovela, distinct flavors and styles have developed among the different Latin countries (Mazziotti, 1993). In Mexico, telenovelas follow the melodramatic tradition of the Cuban radionovelas, they tend to have a main protagonist couple living a romance that will have to battle many difficulties, such as class differences, secrets about the family of origin or a villain that will do anything to break the couples apart. The characters are usually well-defined representations of good or evil; there is no room for questionable human moments of bad and good contradictions (Martín-Barbero, 1992). Brazilian telenovelas on the other hand, have multiple and secondary storylines, allowing the author to create stories within the story (Mazziotti, 1993).

Aufdeheid (1993) described Latin American television as filled with humor, social relevance and national cultural style. He points out that Brazilian novelas have dealt with government corruption, single motherhood, and environmental problems, while Mexican novelas have displayed class differences. Lopez (1995) characterizes the Mexican novelas as the weepers, with no context provided. The intentional use of a "generic" space, that is, the unidentifiable location of Mexican soaps is a devise to provide audiences around the world with the fantasy that the plot might as well be happening in their neighborhood. Martín-Barbero (1995) corroborates this description adding that while the Mexican telenovela takes place in a particular country, it does not correspond to any national reality, and it seems to float above the immediacy of everyday life. Lopez (1995) adds that Colombian telenovelas are more of a humoristic genre with emphasis on the context, while Brazilian novelas are the most realistic, with clear historical narratives, and time and space context is easily identified. In Peru, there is an attempt to mix the romantic characteristics with significant social themes (Quiroz, 1993).



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